Book review: Lucy & Linh by Alice Pung

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Lucy Lam never expected to win a scholarship to Laurinda. Really. That honor was supposed to go to Tully, but for some reason, the admissions committee preferred Lucy’s essay. So there she is, the inaugural recipient of Laurinda’s newest scholarship, the one intended to pull minorities out of despair and thrust them into the privileged life enjoyed by its students.

But, the thing is, Lucy doesn’t mind her life. She likes Christ Our Savior, her accepting, diverse high school. She likes her friends, and even though outsiders might see them as uncultured or rough around the edges, she doesn’t. She likes that where she comes from, everybody understands what it’s like to be a first-generation Australian whose family is struggling to get by. Stanley, her suburb, could be considered a bad area, but Lucy likes how she knows everybody and how everybody helps each other out.

Laurinda is different. Although everybody wears the same uniform and is theoretically on equal footing, Lucy couldn’t be more different from her new classmates. Whereas a big bag of hamburgers and fries from McDonalds was a great sleepover snack for her old friends, her new classmates would be appalled. While her old friends loved helping Lucy babysit her little brother, her new friends (quite literally) turn up their nose at the prospect of hanging out with a baby. And although Lucy was universally seen as intelligent and involved at Christ Our Savior, at Laurinda, she’s sent to remedial English and chided for not involving herself in enough extracurriculars. And, quite unlike Christ Our Savior, Laurinda is unofficially controlled by three beautiful, insanely privileged girls known as the Cabinet.

Brodie, Amber, and Chelsea rule the school with nearly absolute power. It’s not so much that the girls are cruel – although they certainly can be – but more that they’re influential. A well-placed remark can make or break someone’s reputation. A seemingly offhand comment about a teacher can sway the whole class’ perception. A common conversational topic can become a weapon in their hands, and none of it is accidental. The Cabinet knows exactly what to say, how to say it, and the exact circumstances in which to mention it to inflict maximum damage. Lucy notices this immediately, but her fellow classmates think that she’s insane.

Lucy never expects that she, of all people, would be invited into the Cabinet, but the girls take a special interest in her. Despite her resistance to joining their inner circle, Lucy quickly finds herself absorbed in the politics of high school. Living under the Cabinet’s scrutiny suffocates Lucy. She finds herself ashamed of her neighborhood, her home, her family, and her life. As she begins to bury those parts of herself more and more, she finds that she can hardly recognize who she’s become. All those parts of herself that she used to be proud of are hidden, but walking away from the Cabinet and becoming her true self again isn’t so simple.

It actually took me almost a week to read this book, but that’s not because I wasn’t interested. In fact, I was invested in Lucy’s story from the first few pages. But this book, for me, isn’t one of those books that you marathon. You don’t sit down and power through, staying up until the wee hours of the morning to finish. Instead, the book made me think. After every chapter or two, I set my Kindle down and thought about what was happening. And for that reason, I think that this book would do really well in a classroom setting. I’ve talked before about how I hated literary analysis in school, but I think that this book would be fascinating.

Even setting aside the obvious themes of privilege and bullying, there’s a ton of material here. The Lam family’s immigration to Australia first seems like an incidental piece of the plot but turns out to be very important. Everything comes back to it. Lucy’s mother speaks only a few words of English. She earns her living through long hours spent sewing in the family’s garage. Lucy’s father works in a factory. Both of her parents work hard to make sure that their children have a good life, but it leaves little time for anything else. In fact, Lucy ends up doing the majority of parenting of her little brother, something her new friends can’t even begin to understand. I imagine that sitting down to really analyze the deeper impact and meaning of the things that happen in this book would be fascinating.

Alice Pung has created a really well-written, insightful look into what happens when a young girl is taken out of her comfortable, familiar life and inserted into a crazy world of privilege and backstabbing. It’s only a few days into 2017, but I can almost guarantee that Lucy and Linh will be on my list of favorites this year.

Final rating: ★★★★☆

Note: Lucy and Linh was originally published in Australia as Laurinda.

#mmdreading: an immigrant story

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